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Google Wi-Spy Scandal Heats Up

In its relatively short lifespan, Google has turned into a real-life Zardoz, the all-knowing stone head that dominates a post-apocalyptic Earth in the 1974 science fiction film of the same name. But unlike the openly malevolent Zardoz, Google cloaks itself in a do-no-evil mantle.

But that mantle, like the curtain that shielded the ill-fated Wizard of Oz, may be wearing a bit thin as critics question how much Google knew about the rogue engineer supposedly responsible for Google's gathering of massive payloads of data from private Wi-Fi networks.

"Google's motto has always been 'Do no evil.' It should also be 'Do no eavesdropping,'" said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, according to the Los Angeles Times. "Google needs to fully explain to Congress and the public what it knew about the collection of data through its Street View program."

Google already faces an ongoing Federal Trade Commission (FTC) anti-trust probe that took on new life last month when it was disclosed that the government had hired a top private attorney to manage to case.

Now Consumer Watchdog, a non-profit advocacy group in California, has filed a Freedom of Information Act Request with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) seeking all documents related to the Commission’s investigation of the Google "Wi-Spy" scandal. The FCC recently fined Google $25,000 for willfully obstructing the FCC’s investigation into how Google’s Street View cars gathered “payload data” from private Wi-Fi networks.

“The FCC order gives an overview of what happened and shows that others including a senior manager knew – or should have known – about plans to gather messages from private Wi-Fi networks,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director. “The order makes it clear that Google stonewalled and was uncooperative. That’s why the public needs to see all the documents that are related to the case.”

“Google is paying a $25,000 fine for its noncompliance and is trying to portray the FCC order as exonerating the company. That is not the case at all,” said Simpson. “The FCC order shows that substantial questions about the Wi-Spy scandal remain unanswered and that is largely because the engineer responsible for writing the code that gathered payload data invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to testify.”

Engineer Doe

The New York Times identified the engineer, known as “Engineer Doe” in the FCC order, as Marius Milner on Tuesday. On Monday Consumer Watchdog said “Engineer Doe” should be granted immunity from prosecution for his testimony before a Senate hearing.

The FCC order makes clear that as early as 2007 or 2008 Street View team members had wide access to Milner’s design document and code in which the plan to intercept “payload data” was spelled out. One engineer reviewed the code line by line, five engineers pushed the code into Street View cars and, according to the FCC, Milner specifically told two engineers working on the project, including a senior manager, about collecting ‘payload data.’ Nonetheless, they all claim they did not learn payload data was being collected until April or May 2010.

The FCC first released a highly censored version of its order on April 13, 2012. Consumer Watchdog filed a FIOA request seeking an un-redacted version of the order. The FCC then sent a letter to Google saying it would have 10 days to justify censoring the order. Over the weekend Google released a version of the order that omitted only the names of people the FCC interviewed. Consumer Watchdog has withdrawn the original FOIA request for an uncensored version of the order.

The largely un-redacted version that the Internet giant made available over the weekend shows a troubling a portrait of a company where an engineer could run wild with software code that violates the privacy of tens of millions people worldwide, but the corporate culture of “Engineers First” prevented corporate counsel or other engineers from stopping the privacy violations, Consumer Watchdog said.

The Wi-Spy scandal is still being investigated by a group of more than 30 state attorneys general. Consumer Watchdog attorneys are counsel for the plaintiffs in a federal class action suit against Google in the Wi-Spy case.

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